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BERLINALE 2020 Encounters

Review: Servants

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- BERLINALE 2020: Slovak filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovský has crafted an uncompromising piece of arthouse cinema with thriller elements in this story of the Catholic Church in communist Czechoslovakia

Review: Servants

Slovak filmmaker Ivan Ostrochovský started his feature-length film career as one of the three co-directors of Velvet Terrorists [+see also:
film review
trailer
film profile
]
, and then went on to make his solo debut with Koza [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Ivan Ostrochovský
film profile
]
. While the former was a documentary with fictional elements and the latter a fiction film with real-life protagonists playing themselves, the director's latest and most successful outing, Servants [+see also:
trailer
interview: Ivan Ostrochovský
film profile
]
, is pure fiction, albeit based on historical events. The film world-premiered in the 70th Berlinale's Encounters section.

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Co-written by Rebecca Lenkiewicz (Ida [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
interview: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile
]
), Marek Lešcák (The Interpreter [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Martin Šulík
film profile
]
) and Ostrochovský, the picture takes place in the early 1980s at the seminary of the Theological Faculty in Bratislava. Two young priests-to-be, Juraj (Samuel Skyva) and Michal (Samuel Polakovic), arrive from the countryside and slowly get acquainted with life in the school and other seminaries, as well as their "spiritual", a priest dedicated to taking care of them (Milan Mikulcik), and, as we shall soon see, the not-so-powerful dean (Vladimir Strnisko).

At the time, the relationship between the communist state and the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia was uneasy and complex. A regime-sponsored clergy organisation named Pacem in Terris was formed in 1971 in order to keep the priests in a shape that would be tolerable to the, theoretically, completely incompatible state ideology that denounced God. The two institutions existed side by side but played by communist rules.

There is, of course, some resistance against this betrayal of the doctrine among the priests, and it has its tentacles in the seminary, too. The curious Michal is introduced to it by an older student (Tomas Turek), after a pamphlet protesting the acceptance of the ideology by the Church appears on a bulletin board at the seminary. The State Security comes to investigate, headed up by the scary Doctor Ivan, played by Vlad Ivanov, a casting choice that easily exemplifies the mean, insecure and controlling spirit of the regime.

Although the set-up has all the qualities of a thriller, Ostrochovský's approach is almost hard-core arthouse. Shot masterfully in high-contrast black and white and in the Academy ratio by Juraj Chlpik, the film consists almost exclusively of fixed-camera shots. Chlpik uses the seminary's rigid architecture in the background to convey the oppressive atmosphere, which is strongly supported by the intimidatingly slow tempo of the feature and the droning, screeching soundtrack, which hits horror-like, eerie registers with occasional atonal female vocals.

The narrative almost completely lacks exposition: it is not facts or explanations that the director goes for, but a dilemma, both moral and practical, within the main characters and within the relationship between the doctrine and the ideology. But the most impressive thing about Servants is how Ostrochovský has managed to sustain the unrelenting tension and uncertainty throughout the 80-minute running time. His earlier films, although quite accomplished, did not prepare us for such an expert use of film language, with the balanced rhythm in switching between ascetic seminary interiors and muddy, concrete socialist exteriors, the meticulous framing and mise-en-scène, the unassuming but pitch-perfect casting choices, and a number of implied narrative details that clearly show how both of the institutions controlled their subjects.

Servants is a co-production by Slovakia’s Punkchart Films, Sentimentalfilm and Radio and Television Slovakia, Romania’s Point FilmLibra Film and Hai Hui, the Czech Republic’s Negativ, and Ireland’s Film and Music Entertainment. Paris-based Loco Films has the international rights.

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